Calif. community Altadena outside LA fights to protect ‘oldest large-scale Christmas lighting’ tradition

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The California community of Altadena was about to start an annual countdown it has done 101 times. 

At the heart of this community is Christmas Tree Lane, where a row of 138-year-old deodar cedars was waiting to begin glimmering with strung-up bulbs.

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At the Dec. 9 event, the light switch duties went to a county supervisor and sheriff. The two of them held a remote wrapped in gift paper. In front of thousands, they clicked a button, and 155 trees adorned with more than 18,000 lights simultaneously turned on. 

It’s the official sign that the holiday season is here.

While Los Angeles officials claimed the glory of the countdown onstage, Scott Wardlaw, president of the Christmas Tree Lane Association (CTLA), later admitted that the gift-wrapped remote was nothing more than a prop.

Scenes from the 103rd Christmas Tree Lane lighting event in Altadena, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2023.Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE
Scenes from the 103rd Christmas Tree Lane lighting event in Altadena, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2023.Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE

“It’s actually nicer the way it’s lit. We have a local Girl Scout group and there are three power boxes along Christmas tree Lane,” Wardlaw told SFGATE. “The [Girl Scouts] are trained ahead of time we run through the process with them. But it’s really just flicking the switch at those power boxes … and they’re all supposed to go on at the same time.”

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It’s an excellent allegory to the story of Altadena — how a  small city deeply rooted in heritage is held together by the local community, determined to keep its traditions alive. 

Historic spectacle 

An unincorporated micropolitan area of Los Angeles County, Altadena’s population of just over 40,000 people sees a noticeable uptick in visitors for the last month of the year. 

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Altadena Christmas Tree Lane, Dec. 24, 1953.

Altadena Christmas Tree Lane, Dec. 24, 1953.

University of Southern California/Getty Images

To celebrate, the community hosted a winter festival on Dec. 9 that attracted thousands of holiday revelers.

The Altadena Arts Magnet School’s choir and the local high school band performed while specialty food trucks served up Mediterranean food, bison burgers, ice cream and more in the Altadena Library parking lot. 

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Wardlaw explained to SFGATE how the tree-lighting event evolved since its humble beginnings when people freely roamed the street. 

“We can’t do that anymore when we have 8- to 10,000 people, so it all just gets more complex,” Wardlaw said.

Christmas Tree Lane was deemed a state historical landmark in 1990 and lies in a residential area that’s almost a mile long. While most neighbors aren’t directly involved with its festivities, some open their homes for the festival.

A model railroad society opened its doors for its annual holiday train museum. Another neighbor offered free hot chocolate to festivalgoers. From the opening ceremony through the first week of January, visitors can drive down Santa Rosa Avenue between Altadena Drive and Woodbury Road to enjoy the multicolored lit trees — each one more unique than the next.

“They’re all individual trees there,” Wardlaw said. “They’re all different.”

A crowd watches the lights turn on during the 103rd Christmas Tree Lane lighting event in Altadena, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2023.

A crowd watches the lights turn on during the 103rd Christmas Tree Lane lighting event in Altadena, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2023.

Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE

The CTLA is a nonprofit organization composed of 15 board members and various volunteers. Beginning in September, they spend up to 10 weekends stringing up the lights. 

The lights remain up for three weeks, including several days after Dec. 25, for orthodox churches that celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, before volunteers take them down early in the new year.

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Invasive neighbor

The CTLA was formed in 1956 and was born out of necessity to preserve the tradition. 

Unlike its neighbors, Pasadena is an incorporated city in Los Angeles County with a population of almost 135,000 people and a mayor, police department and fire department. Altadena has none of those things and relies mainly on Los Angeles County to provide these services.

But Altadena is fiercely protected by its citizens, who are determined to prevent the community from being swallowed up by its city neighbor.

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Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, Calif., Dec. 15, 1937.

Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, Calif., Dec. 15, 1937.

Doug White/Huntington Library

“Citizens here have consistently resisted annexation to Pasadena … and voted down incorporating as a city,” the local heritage organization wrote on its website. “Altadenans prefer a looser political structure that still manages to foster an unmistakable identity.” Pasadena had made a habit of annexing land from Altadena; Altadena Heritage said the “city has taken 46 ‘bites’ of it over the years, seeking tax revenues.” 

In 1956, Altadena community members rallied to officially resist annexation by Pasadena.

Pasadena city workers had previously hung the lights each year. But those days were over after Altadena officially cut off its neighbor’s annexation efforts. And the CTLA was born.

Keeping Christmas Tree Lane lit

The CTLA is entirely volunteer-run, with year-round meetings for perfecting just three weeks out of the year so the trees shine bright. Keeping the lane lit every year comes with its challenges. Until 2000, the energy company Southern California Edison took care of the light bill each year. But when California electrical utilities were deregulated, that ended. CTLA would now have to foot the bill.

CTLA wrote on its website that a Los Angeles County supervisor provided funds for upgrading the electrical grids and systems, but “the issue of electricity bills, as well as costly liability insurance, remain a constant threat to the survival of the Lane.”

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A customers holds a sweater during the 103rd Christmas Tree Lane lighting event in Altadena, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2023.

A customers holds a sweater during the 103rd Christmas Tree Lane lighting event in Altadena, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2023.

Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE

It used to cost about $3,000 to keep the lane lit for three weeks. That changed in 2018, when a new California law required organizations to switch from incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient LED bulbs. The new bulbs were a costly investment up front, with the upgrade costing about $30 per bulb. The CTLA could only afford to buy a few at first.

LED bulbs have since become more affordable, and the CTLA buys them in bulk, planning to replace bulbs every five years. The investment has lowered their electric bill to about $400 for the same three weeks.

The savings are a welcome change for Altadena as it prepares for future lightings on its deodar cedar trees, known to live up to 1,000 years.





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